A Scarlet Ibis Couple’s Spacious, Designer Nest.

As a psychology student at Tulane University, I took a couple of independent study courses observing animal behaviour at Audubon Zoo, near campus.  One semester, I studied the mating behaviour of the scarlet ibis, a wading bird common in marshes and estuaries.  Like other species of birds, the ibis is seasonally monogamous.  For weeks, I watched seven pairs go through the process of nest-building, courting and mating.  Right on schedule, all but one pair stopped sexual and nest-building behaviour within days of each other and settled in for the incubation period.  My interest was piqued by the behaviour of one particular pair that kept building their nest, as well as mating.

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“Unnatural” Nature, Immoral Butterflies: The Great Cover-Up of Animal Homosexuality

Back in 2000, an eminent and otherwise respectable biologist declared that except for a few instances observed among primates, there was no evidence of homosexuality among animals:

This was breathtakingly inaccurate. Just the previous year another biologist, Bruce Bagemihl,had published a book summarizing previously published scientific papers which described homosexual behaviour in over 300 species of animals and birds (listing dozens of papers for each), and also listing additional species of reptiles, amphibians, fish and even insects – over a thousand species in all, and tens of thousands of peer-reviewed articles. The first recorded observations of animal homosexuality were two millenia ago, by the ancient Greeks. In modern times, the first formal publication of scientific observations go back over 150 years. Photographic evidence of male swan couples has existed since the mid-nineteenth century.

Even this illustration, of male beetles doing it, was published as long ago as 1896:


Male Scarab Beetles, 1896


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Our Queer Primate Cousins

A favourite argument used by the religious right against homoerotic relationships, and by the Vatican theologians against any form of sexual expression outside of marriage and not open to making babies, is that such sexual activities are “against nature”, and that the “purpose” of sex is procreation.

Well, the people making these claims have never considered the actual evidence from , well, you know, – “Nature” itself, which shows the exact opposite. (But then, when did the Vatican, or the wingnuts, ever consider the trifling matter of evidence to interfere with their convictions?)

In the lively comments thread after an earlier post in this series, reader CS in AZ reminded me of a famous exchange with Anita Bryant:

This reminds me of Anita Bryant, back when she was on her anti-homosexul crusade … she said that homosexuality was unnatural and so repulsive that “even barn yard animals don’t do it” — then someone pointed out to her that barnyard animals in fact DO do that, with some frequency, as anyone who grew up around farm animals knows very well! LOL…
well, she was only momentarily flustered, then she just pivoted 180 degrees and said, “well, that doesn’t make it right!”

Well no, but it sure as hell don’t make it wrong, either. On the subject of sexual ethics, “Nature” is entirely neutral. However, as so many self-righteous bigots attempt to introduce nature into ethical and political discussions, it is worth knowing just what “natural” sex really is (it’s also just fun to know.)



Bonobo females, with onlookers


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Same-Sex Parents, Furred and Feathered.

There have been an increasing number of research studies which show that as parents,  same sex couples are at least as good as opposite sex- couples. As a gay father and grandfather myself, I don’t really need to be told this by modern research: I first learnt of the evidence decades ago, from a family friend who was then a child welfare social worker, and is today a top authority on the subject. I also have the best of all possible authority, the experience of my own family. My daughter is very clear on the subject: she is on record as saying “Gay Parents? I recommend them”. She has told me that when she says a young child with two dads, her immediate response is – “Lucky child”. Still, it’s good to see the evidence getting a more public hearing. and reaching the mainstream.

I was interested though, to find that in this, as in so many other areas, of human sexuality, the same pattern is found in many species of animals and birds.

Two Dads, with Kids

Homosexuality in animals has been known since ancient times, but still fails to penetrate the public consciousness. Read the rest of this entry »

Animals Use Sex Toys, Too

The more I explore the nature of sexuality in the animal world, the more amazed I am at the extraordinary number of ways in which animals show all the diversity of human sexuality, and more. Male dolphins and whales have an extra orifice to penetrate (their partners’ blowholes); some primate male couples can indulge in “penis fencing” while hanging from a tree branch (I bet you’ve never tried that); and female spotted hyenas have a pseudo- phallus that they can (and do) use for penetration. More familiar activities are the usual mounting and penetration, either vaginal or anal, usually from the rear but sometimes from the front, or even the side; masturbation, using hands if they have them, but also flippers or just the ground; oral sex – forms of both fellatio and cunnilingus are known; and just plain cuddling and caressing.

Squirrel Threesome

Relationships are equally diverse, including long term pair bonds, in both between-sex and same-sex couples, one-off copulation, strictly monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, polygamy, polyandry and group orgies. Read the rest of this entry »

Bighorn Rams: Macho Homos, Wimpish Heteros

To look at them, bighorn rams are the very image of hypermasculinity. They live on the rugged mountain slopes of Montana and Canada, in an environment that demands strengh, athleticism and stamina. Their appearance is impressive, with large thick horns curling back behind the ear, and they’re big, weighing up to 300 pounds. They exude so much machismo, that their image has been appropriated by numerous as a symbol for many  male athletic teams. And they like their sex – with other males. Those few who don’t, are described by researchers as “effeminate” .

Lovers, maybe?

For bighorn sheep (and also for thinhorns), “natural” sex is same-sex, including elaborate courtship rituals, genital licking, and anal penetration. (Many rams also find a way to “masturbate” – not with their hooves, but by rubbing on the ground.)  In this “homosexual society”, almost all rams routinely participate year-round in sexual activity with each other, but heterosexual intercourse is limiting to the rutting season. Even then, not all rams, especially the younger ones, get to participate.

For Bighorn and Thinhorn Sheep, heterosexuality is emphatically not “normal”.

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Bighorn Rams: Macho Homos, Wimpish Heteros

(Note: This site is a  selective mirror of posts from my main site. Comments here have been disabled.  To place a comment, or to read the full range of posts and features of the main site, go to  the  corresponding post at my main site.) Read the rest of this entry »

Natural Law, Evidence, and Laysan’s Albatross

A key part of the argument against homoerotic relationships, fundamental to the Catholic Magisterium, to the religious opposition more generally, and to the supporters of so-called “traditional” marriage, is that same sex relationships are somehow “unnatural”, “against natural law”. This claim is entirely without foundation. What these groups have in common, apart from their conclusion, is a total disregard for the evidence.  Some research into the Laysan albatross neatly illustrates this.  The disregard of the need for evidence does not only apply to claims for natural law: exactly the same charge can be made against Vatican claims that “homosexuals” are motivated solely by  -indulgence, and that homosexual “acts” lead one away from God – claims that likewise do not stand up to scrutiny. For now, though, I am concerned only about the problem as it applies to the argument from natural law

All albatrosses are large birds nesting in isolated colonies free from natural predators, which makes them easy to study (the birds are trusting and allow researchers to get up real close and personal). Much of their behaviour is well-known. For instance, in one colony at Kaena Point, Hawaii, there are about 120 breeding pairs, who gather for mating every November. They form long-term partnerships, and after copulation, lay a single egg, which they incubate in shifts, taking turns to leave the nests for weeks at a time to feed at sea. They form long-lasting, often life- long pairs, and were praised by former US first lady Laura Bush for their commitment to each other, and the example they offered as icons of monogamy. The obvious assumption that these monogamous pairs represent one male and one female in a neat nuclear family, though, turns out to be false. One third of the pairs are female couples, some of whom had nested together every year since right back to the start of data collection – 19 years.

Ornithologist Lindsay C Young  has been studying this albatross colony since 2003, as part of her doctoral dissertation.  She says that the discovery of so many female pairs forced her to question assumptions she didn’t even know she was making.  This in itself was something of a breakthrough: observations of same sex behaviour or relationships in the animal world are not new, but too often in the past, biologists have simply ignored them, or attempted to explain these observations as aberrations.

Joan Roughgarden quotes one notable scholar who claimed in 2000, at the end of a long and distinguished career,  that  “When animals have access to members of the the opposite sex, homosexuality is virtually unknown in nature, with some rare exceptions in primates”.

But just the previous year, Bruce Bagemihl had published a book reviewing published academic research into over three hundred vertebrate species which engage in same-sex courtship and genital contact. In some of these, homosexual activity is even more frequent than heterosexual intercourse.[ad#In post banner] Read the rest of this entry »

Exclusive Heterosexuality Unnatural?

“I don’t know of any species that is exclusively heterosexual”

– Zurich Zoo tour guide, Myriam Schärz.

The argument that same -sex relationships are supposedly “unnatural” is so fundamental to the homophobes’ case, that it needs to be countered at every opportunity. At Bilerico Project, Jesses Monteagudo has a good rundown of just how widespread same sex behaviour is in the animal kingdom. Here are some extracts:

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